Long ago, before the internet, it was easy to be shocked, dazzled, and surprised by some random nightmare that you or your family brought home to watch behind closed doors. Even the best advertising campaigns couldn’t rival the word of mouth passing across playgrounds and campfires, the whispers of something wicked you could rent down the street. Legendary among these home-viewing horrors were the so-called video nasties, a loose aggregation of weird and extreme genre films whose content (and accessibility) so incensed the status quo that they were eventually banned in the U.K. by the British Board Of Film Classification. You could go to jail for carrying them.
A subtle (until it defiantly isn’t) British mood piece, Censor makes horror films, and the emotions they evoke, feel dangerous again—maybe as dangerous as they felt during that era of moral panic. The film, directed and co-written by Prano Bailey-Bond, is set in 1985, at the height of the video nasty hysteria. It follows Enid Baines (Naimh Algar), one of the most motivated and meticulous censors at the BBFC. Enid has a visceral antagonism towards splatter that’s linked to a childhood tragedy the film thankfully discloses up front. The mysterious loss of her sister has left her sensitive to the why of the content she snips and bans, and every step she takes through life winds the spring tighter. Algar, best known perhaps for her regular role on Raised By Wolves, is staggeringly good here, whether wielding a notepad or an axe. She has the best horror movie hair since Greta Gerwig in The House Of The Devil: disciplined, but with meticulous unruly strands that imply repression and a shift in power dynamics.
Professional drive as a primary character trait is a regular trope of the kind of films that Enid, a workaholic herself, makes a living evaluating. It’s a dark comic irony that colors much of the film’s first half. Enid can’t see those patterns in the movies she studies; she’s capable only of expounding in great detail on the many atrocities depicted, which she does at one point when trying to infiltrate an underground video store. Reducing horror only to acts committed, she has the tunnel vision of The Wicker Man’s Sergeant Howie. “It’s not for entertainment,” she tells her mother. “I do it to protect people.” Of course, to modern viewers, for whom actual snuff is but a few clicks away online, the BBFC’s infamous efforts to shield the public from B-movies can seem rather quaint and naïve.
The opening credits, a tightly constructed tour of Enid’s workplace and the films she’s tasked with cutting, have an echo of Dario Argento’s The Stendhal Syndrome, a similarly upsetting take on the process of metabolizing trauma. Both films feature heralded works of art as a continuum in which their own stories will unfold. Whether it’s Renaissance portraiture, Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer, or today’s most immediate meme, what we watch breaks out of the background to touch the lives and the art surrounding it; it plants unseen seeds. And for Enid, these gory films become the engine driving a quest to find her long-lost sister, and she enters the horror industry as an investigative subject instead of distanced adjudicator. Every bootleg banned tape is a clue to the family-wrecking question mark that plagues the Bainses. The path of destiny aligns with the narratives of a renegade cult director, Frederic North (Adrian Schiller), whose work Enid first encounters on the job.
Horror fans will get the most out of this film, though it’s no formalist homage or Mad Libs pastiche. Censor is about the emotional situation that horror brings about in its characters and viewers, and its refusal to pile on specific references or indulge in any nostalgia whatsoever may keep audiences at arm’s length. But it gets at the patronizing, reactionary malice of Thatcherism without underlining that subtext, and demonstrates how trauma is absorbed and weaponized by conservatism in a fashion that will fuel grad school theses for the foreseeable future. Censor’s meticulous, insidious structure sticks to the subconscious; this is an auspicious debut in modern genre cinema.